Traveling with Anxiety

This post was contributed by Molly Broekman.

Anxiety can feel limiting, but it does not have to be limiting.

Both of my parents grew up living international lives. Between traveling with her parents and studying abroad, my mom explored the world quite a bit. My dad is from the Netherlands, and now he has a job in which travel is a major component. Naturally, travel has always found a way to influence my life. As a little girl, I remember thinking: all I want to do when I get older is to travel, and I would love to do it as frequently as possible.

But here’s what I didn’t know.

When I was younger, I started to get panic attacks. I had always been a pretty anxious kid, but after my grandma passed away, the anxiety intensified. I could barely sit in a room on my own without freaking out. As I grew older, the nature of my panic attacks, and the way that they presented themselves changed. They were triggered more by social encounters and moments of stress rather than being alone. These attacks started to become more intense in high school, and I began to feel a sense of uneasiness and anxiety everywhere I went. After feeling extremely anxious, my body would decide to move into a mode of total shutdown, and I felt like I was having a heart attack.
My heart rate and body temperature would dramatically increase as my cheeks turned beet red, and I would start to hyperventilate. When a panic attack came on, tears welled up in my eyes, and I couldn’t help but feel helpless and hopeless. I was completely out of control of my own body. Meanwhile, I wanted to travel, but something was hindering my desire. A little voice in the back of my mind was saying:

Stay home. It’s safe here.”

Deep down, I wanted to talk to new people, explore new places, and do new things.
Unfortunately, I felt as though I was behind bars and unable to leave the cage of fear I had built for myself. I started to dwell on what could go wrong, but I never thought about what I could gain from new experiences. Something that I love shouldn’t scare me, and that is when I realized what I had to do.

I had to go anyway.

A few years back, my best friend and I planned a month-long trip to Europe.  It was the summer before my senior year of high school, and I had a free plane ticket, courtesy of my dad’s frequent flyer points. My parents had made arrangements for us to stay with family and friends, and my dad would be on a business trip in Germany at the same time. I was so excited yet nervous, and I counted down the days until I left, attempting to remind myself that it was actually happening. Every day, I took deep breaths and clenched my hands as I thought about everything that could possibly go wrong: What if strangers heard me speaking English? Would they hate me for being American?  Even worse, what if the plane fell from the sky?
In my head, I didn’t think that I would actually make it there. I truly thought that at the last second, I would back out and stay home. It would be so easy and familiar just to stay home with my brothers, with their constant bustle adding structure to my daily routine. I had never been away for this long, and I hadn’t traveled this far since I was a toddler. Even with the excitement, actually leaving home felt too distant.

Stay home! It’s safe here, remember?

But whatever, I just had to go for it  –– my plane ticket and accommodation were already booked. I darn sure couldn’t afford to dump money down the drain and leave my friend hanging. So, to prepare for the flight, I drank some coffee. Coffee makes most people anxious, but oddly enough, it calmed me for a little while. In return, being calm actually made me anxious! Ugh. I just couldn’t win!
Why wasn’t I freaking out? As I started to worry about not worrying, the flight began to board. I started to sweat uncontrollably. My hands were so clammy you would have thought I had doused them with the contents of my water bottle. Before taking my seat, my stomach dropped. I was overcome by the fear of descending on a rollercoaster, but at least roller coasters are on secured tracks; planes are not!
After everyone was settled on the plane, and we began to prepare for takeoff, I clutched the seat. I reminded myself that there was no backing out now. Throughout the flight, each bump of turbulence made my stomach flip. When I eventually had to pee, I was afraid that I might knock off the balance of the plane and lead it to tumble into the Atlantic. All of these fears seemed very real to me at the moment. But as the plane landed, I realized that they weren’t that big. I had made it! Now I kind of understand why some people clap at the end of a flight (mind you I didn’t clap, but now I understand).
Meanwhile, my thirst for travel grew. It overcame the voice in my head, and it was replaced with a new one that told me to go everywhere and to do everything. Even though I was afraid, the best possible thing I could do for myself was exactly what I was afraid of.

Because I told my anxiety to shut up…

I got to go on adventures I never knew I would have the chance to do. I twirled through the streets of Vienna. Awkward pictures were taken with a street musician in a horse hat along the way. I saw the most beautiful sunset of my life, while the snow on the Alps sparkled a lake away. I stayed in the Airbnb of an old Polish man who wore bright yellow crocs and only spoke Polish; there I attempted to shower in a bath the size of a sink, only to still be really sweaty the from the previous day. I proclaimed ice cream to be the most important food group. I ate it way too often because I wanted to see if it was “different in other places”; update –– it definitely is!  I pushed myself completely out of my comfort zone, and I loved it.

I thought I would never make it to the places I had seen beautiful pictures of, or speak the language I was learning with people who have spoken it all of their lives. But in the end, all I really had to do to overcome it was to look my fear straight in the eye, say:

“Shut up,” and then go.

Molly Broekman is a Design and German language student whose life-blood is coffee. She is horrified of airplanes, but will do pretty much anything to get on one (ok not anything, but you get the picture). When she isn’t traveling, she likes to surf Pinterest to pretend like she is. Stay updated with Molly on Instagram.

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